It’s almost a rite of Bears preseason: Shaky pass protection in the opener against the Broncos has cynics wondering if Jay Cutler will make it through the season and unfazed Bears offensive linemen reminding everyone it’s only the first game.
“We’ll be fine. There’s nothing to worry about,” veteran tackle Bobby Massie said after the first-team offense allowed two of the Broncos’ seven sacks — both on third down plays — in a 22-0 loss Thursday night at Soldier Field. “No need to panic or anything. It’s the very first preseason game. We’ll be OK.”
The Bears know there is a lot of work to be done after the first-team offense gained a net 13 yards on 10 plays in its three series against the Broncos. “We just have to pick it up,” left tackle Charles Leno, Jr. said. “Execute better one-on-one blocks. Attention to detail. Practice. We’ve got to [have] a little more sense of urgency. There’s no panic right now at all. But we do understand we need to [play] better.”
The issues were typical of Bears offenses in the Cutler era. The Bears were penalized for illegal formation. Running back Jeremy Langford gained seven yards on four carries. And Cutler was sacked on third down both times. Derek Wolfe beat Kyle Long and Shane Ray beat Charles Leno, Jr. on the first one — with Cutler stepping up into the pressure; and T.J. Ward came in free on a safety blitz on the second one.
“We can’t let guys be free — that falls on us up front,” Long said. “You’ve got to look at it and say, ‘What did we do wrong? How are we going to fix it?” [That part’s] simple. The hard part is getting out there and doing it under pressure when the lights are on and there’s another team coming.
“Luckily we have three more preseason games before the games start counting — and I have faith in the group of guys to be able to get it together and right the ship here, because obviously [the Broncos] did it a lot better than we did.”
The Bears have so often been in state of flux on their offensive line — and with little established depth — in recent years that the first-game struggles are not surprising. (The Bears have been out-sacked 37-12 in preseason openers since 2010, including 6-0 when the starting quarterbacks are playing.)
Sometimes those issues are a harbinger of trouble in the regular season — like in 2010, when the Bears allowed six sacks against the Chargers in the preseason opener, and Cutler was under siege all season as the Bear allowed a league-high 56 sacks; and sometimes they are not — like in 2013, when the Bears allowed seven sacks against the Panthers in the preseason opener, but allowed on 30 in the regular season (tied for fourth fewest in the NFL) and were second in the league in scoring in Marc Trestman’s first season.
That 2013 team had a solid nucleus of lineman who were new to the team — free agents Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson and rookie Kyle Long. This year’s group has three newcomers in rookie left guard Cody Whitehair, center Ted Larsen and right tackle Massie to go with holdovers Long and left tackle Leno.
Whitehair not only started at left guard, but also played center with the second team offense against the Broncos.
“I’ve got some work to do, obviously. But I thought it was a pretty good day overall,” Whitehair said. “I was probably thinking a little too much. But my first preseason game and my first live-action game, it’s a little bit faster than I’m used to seeing in practice, so that’s something I got to work on.”
Larsen, moved to center this week after starter Hroniss Grasu suffered a season-ending torn right ACL last Saturday, started at center for the first time in the NFL since 2013 with the Buccaneers. He’s confident he’ll be ready to go by the season opener at Houston on Sept. 11.
“Me and Jay are comfortable,” Larsen said “So we’ve just got to execute better. More reps. We’re getting some good work against New England in the week ahead and then in preseason, too. Hopefully we get a couple more reps next week and get some drives going.”
Another issue to consider: Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips tested the Bears with blitzes and stunts — a tough chore for any protection unit still trying to establish chemistry.
“We’re not game-planning for a preseason game, so it was a couple of things we weren’t expecting,” Massie said. “If we had game-planned, it would have been a totally different story.”
Eventually, the Bears will get a chance to prove that. Long and others saw positive signs.
“Absolutely, said Long, a three-time Pro Bowl lineman. “We’re getting movement on the line of scrimmage. We just have to know where we’re going and why we’re going there and whne to go there — and do it.”
Furthermore, “we didn’t have any miscommunications,” Long said. “We just have to get better technically. You do the little things right you tend to win and we did a lot of little things wrong [against the Broncos]. We can only go up from here.”